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HomeIndustry SectorFilmThanksgiving Director Eli Roth on Making a Seasonal Slasher Unlike Any Other

Thanksgiving Director Eli Roth on Making a Seasonal Slasher Unlike Any Other

At this point, director Eli Roth has a career has spanned more than 20 years, but he’s still best known for his horror and genre movies, although he’s taken a few tangents into television and other media.

Roth’s latest film, Thanksgiving, is a straight-up slasher film that takes place in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts where a Black Friday stampede leaves a number of people dead, and a year later, those thought to be responsible for the deaths start being killed off as well, leaving the town’s sheriff (Patrick Dempsey) mystified. Making things even more horrifying, the killer dresses as early pilgrim John Carver and uses various things connected to Thanksgiving in his brutal murders.

Thanksgiving is Roth’s first bonafide slasher, and those who have followed his career might remember that he provided a teaser for the movie with the fake trailer he created for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez‘s Grindhouse about sixteen years ago. Thanksgiving the feature actually has a budget to make it look more modern and less deliberately like an ‘80s B-movie, and it really should stand on its own for younger horror fans who were probably too young to see Grindhouse. (You can read my review of the movie here.)

Above the Line spoke with Roth over Zoom last week, although he was hesitant to say too much (or anything) about his movie version of the video game Borderlands, which won’t be seeing the light of day until August 2024.

Eli Roth on the set of Thanksgiving (Sony/TriStar)

Above the Line: I know this started as a trailer in Grindhouse maybe 16 years ago, which is crazy, and it seemed like it was done more as a joke, and it was a funny bit. At what point did you think, “Hey, this actually can make a pretty good movie. I should do this”?

Eli Roth: The original inception of doing Thanksgiving was when I was 11 or 12 years old, with Jeff Rendell, my best friend who plays the killer — he plays the pilgrim in the trailer and we wrote it together. Jeff and I grew up in Massachusetts, so Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday. You do the school play about Thanksgiving. There’s two separate recreation villages that you go and visit as kids, and there’s the Plymouth parade, so it’s a major deal. Every other holiday was being taken for slasher films. We were watching Black Christmas, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, Happy Birthday to Me, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day in Creepshow, and were like, “Why isn’t there a Thanksgiving movie?” What happened was like this desert where after Halloween, as soon as it was November 1, everything flipped, and it was all family movies and holiday movies and Christmas movies. I’d have to wait until January or February again for horror movie season to start up again. Our dream was always to make a real movie that would be like a true Thanksgiving slasher film, and then in the ’90s, you have a couple like Mute Witness, which we love, and then Scream, and then when Grindhouse came up, Quentin and Robert offered me the opportunity to do it, and we did it as a fake trailer, where we could just have fun with all the kills. There was no plot; it was just ridiculousness. After that, we were like, “Well, we’re done. We didn’t even have to make the movie. We just did the best parts.”

Over the years, the fans kept bugging me, going, “When’s Thanksgiving? When’s Thanksgiving?” and we were like, “We already saw it!” I didn’t want to make it unless I had a idea for it. Jeff and I started watching these Black Friday tramplings and riots and all the viral videos happening, and we realized that Black Friday was bleeding over into Thanksgiving, and that there’s this holiday about being thankful for your health, for your family, for your friends, and then just running out and killing someone for a flat screen TV or a waffle iron. We thought, “That’s great fertile ground for a horror film,” especially as the consciousness of what Thanksgiving really was and what the Pilgrims did to the Native Americans and colonization and all of those themes. It’s all there. It’s such rich territory to make a horror movie and we started writing it, and Jeff wrote a brilliant script.

Eli Roth on the set of Thanksgiving (Sony/TriStar)

ATL: The Black Friday section is so scary that you probably could have made a 90-minute movie just about that absolute hell craziness. We see that all the time, just not that extreme. We see that all the time anyway, but not to that extreme. 

Roth: That was crazy. We shot that in four nights — two nights outside, two nights inside. It 600 people, then it was about 150, 200 people in the riot. It was insane. Nobody got hurt. Everybody was incredible. It was probably the hardest sequence I’ve ever had to direct in terms of making sure we got all the pieces we needed.

ATL: I know you’re a student of horror, but you’ve never actually directed a slasher film before, which is amazing. You have lots of gore in your other movies, but had you been making a mental list of what you might want to have or avoid when you finally made one?

Roth: Definitely. Look, my other films didn’t really have a killer. That’s the crazy thing. Cabin Fever, it’s the disease and panic that kills, and Hostel, it’s businessman torturing, but it’s not exactly a slasher movie. Green Inferno, it’s the villagers, and they’re just protecting themselves. I like these morally-ambiguous, disturbing horror films, but I wanted to make a proper slasher film, and I want people to know from the opening shot, you’re in a slasher film. I wanted the POV of the house. I wanted the identifying Chiron saying, “This is where we are, this is the date of the year,” just like in The Prowler, just like in Halloween, just like in Black Christmas. All of these films that start in a certain language. My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, they start with a tragic event, then it’s a certain period of time later, and all the people connected to the event are getting killed, and you wonder who amongst the group of friends is exacting revenge on everyone. It’s really fun to write that and then coming up with a new killer. I love Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Ghostface – obviously it’s why I do what I do. I feel like it’s time for a new one and to give a new generation their own slasher that they can take ownership with, the way that I grew up with Harry Warden, and I always loved My Bloody Valentine and the miner look. Using the pilgrim was always the idea, because they’re great morality tales, but the holiday is a great excuse to have a killing rampage.

ATL: Going back to Grindhouse for a second, I realized that if someone saw Grindhouse when they were maybe 13 or 14 at the time are all in their 30s now, so your target audience might be all the young people who never even saw the fake trailer in Grindhouse.

Roth: We showed it to a test audience, and we said how many people have seen the trailer, and out of the 30 sampled, only one person had seen it, and they still love the movie. And then we asked them, “What’s your favorite kill?” And people are like, “We love the cheerleader scene.” Once we said we’re making a 2023 movie, as if Thanksgiving 1980 was a movie that existed but the day it was released, it was so offensive, every print was pulled from theaters and then they were all burned. The only thing that survived was a trailer that freed us up to use moments from the trailer that we liked, but not be slavishly recreating it. The intention from the beginning was always to fill the November void where there are no horror movies.

ATL: You also reunited with Rick Hoffman from Hostel, and when I saw him in the trailer, I immediately thought, “Okay, he’s the asshole who definitely gets killed.” I don’t want to spoil anything, but he’s very different in this. His character actually has a conscience, and it’s a very different character from what we normally see him play. 

Roth: I love Rick Hoffman. I think Rick’s a brilliant actor, and I’m very happy he was named “Sexiest Man Alive.” I think he deserves it.  But Rick, he’s a gem, he really is. I think one of the reasons Suits is as popular as it is, is Rick Hoffman. Everybody loves Louis Litt. There’s a little part of all of us that’s like Louis Litt. He behaves in ways we’re ashamed of and wish we could and he’s so funny, and he’s really, really a fine actor. I knew that pairing him with Nell Verlaque, who’s such a good actor – New York theater-trained actor – that the father daughter, they were so real and so great together. And Rick is just funny. He’s like human laughing gas. You put him on set and everyone just starts laughing. We had a great time reuniting. We hadn’t worked together since Hostel. We just had a blast doing it, and I’m very, very grateful Rick did the movie.

The killer John Carver in Thanksgiving (Sony/TriStar)

ATL: I also loved the McCarty character (played by Joe Delfin).

Roth: McCarty, based on Mike McCarty, who did the makeup FX in the Grindhouse trailer. He’s the guy who screams, “Get the f*** out of the way in the original trailer.”  He’s a makeup effects artists here in LA, he’s a great, great, dude. But that’s McCarty. He’s a rock and roll dude through and through, heavy metal. When Jeff wrote that character, we were just “It’s got to be McCarty, the McCarty party.” And this actor Joe Delfin, who I think was brilliant, came in with a wicked Boston accent and he just nailed it. He was McCarty.

ATL: Obviously, I’ve known your movies going back to Cabin Fever, and I loved how you upped the gore factor with this one. It’s just above and beyond anything else you’ve done, on another level.

Roth: I always worry I didn’t do enough. In my mind, I’m like, “Ah, man, I could have done more,” and then people are like, “That’s gorier than Hostel. I’ve never seen a movie that gory before.” So my tolerance for it is clearly out the window, because I have no gauge whatsoever for what’s too much gore, but the audience usually tells you. But yeah, I want to outdo myself with every movie I make. It’s a badge of honor that I get to make a horror movie. I direct it like I might never get to do another one or I could die tomorrow, so I just want these to go down in like the canon of kills as a classic horror movie kill.

ATL: I was at a great screening with Phil from Fangoria and Clark Collis from EW, and just hearing those guys behind me reacting to things happening, it confirmed that I wasn’t alone thinking those kills were great.

Roth: Oh, nice! That’s so good. I’m glad it got you guys, because Phil’s seen everything.

ATL: Has Sony actually cut a new trailer to show off Patrick Dempsey’s Sexiest Man Alive honor, maybe made a new trailer just focusing on his sexiness a bit more?

Roth: Oh, yeah. I think they already put it out on socials; they’re on it. “This Thanksgiving, turn up the heat for the sexiest man alive.” We all found out last night at nine o’clock. We had no idea until it was announced on Jimmy Kimmel, and our chat group blew up. Everyone’s like, “Did you see this?” Patrick didn’t tell anybody. So this morning, they’re like, “Yeah, we’re cutting something for it.”

Patrick Dempsey in Thanksgiving (Sony/TriStar)

ATL: I didn’t recognize him in the trailer. I saw the trailer a few times, and it didn’t really click it was him until I saw the movie, and was like, “Oh, that’s Patrick Dempsey.”

Roth: He’s great. You know, Patrick has that real down-to-earth quality about him, and he’s playing the local sheriff. What’s cool is Patrick grew up in Maine, so he told me, “Do you want me to use my accent?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “You know I’m from Maine, I talk like this. I got a wicked little bit of a New England accent.” I’m like [putting on his own really heavy Mass. accent], “Dude, you’re from f***ing Maine, kid?” He’s like, “Yeah, buddy!” We just were talking in our Boston accents the whole time. This accent he uses in the movie is his real accent, and it’s the first time he has ever used it in a film before. It’s pretty cool.

ATL: Were other actors having to do accents as well?

Roth: Look, where I grew up. some kids had it and some kids didn’t. It just depended on what neighborhood and what street, it was like wrong side of the tracks. If you’re a little blue collar, you had “wicked” and the accent. It was like a class thing where I grew up to. We found this woman [puts on heavy Boston accent again], Amanda Barker came in and auditioned. Turns out she’s from Hanover, she’s a descendant to John Carver. When she’s working in the diner, we’re having a scene where John Carver is sticking her face against the freezer, and it’s her great, great, great — however many — uncle. I mean, John Carver is a real historical figure and she’s a direct descendants. We had John Carver DNA on our set. That’s how we knew it was right. And this kid, Mika Amonsen, who’s from Toronto plays Lonnie, the Hanover kid in the blue jacket, the assistant coach, he talked perfectly. I was like, “Dude, where is your accent from?” And basically, from the time he was 10 years old, he had been watching The Departed, The Town, Boondock Saints, he watched every Boston movie until he perfected the accent, because his lifelong dream was to play a Masshole. It was kind of perfect, so we found these great actors in Toronto, people that could do the accent or that were actually from the area.

ATL: I want to ask about Borderlands. I was surprised that Thanksgiving got done and is coming out before that since I feel that shot many years ago. Are you still working on that or has that been done for a while?

Roth: Borderlands is a big visual effects movie, so that’s a lot longer of a process, and it’s big kind of fun summer popcorn movie. so the time to release it is summertime. The pandemic threw everything into chaos and movies just got booked up and pushed, so the slot we have it is August 2024. They specifically asked me not to talk about it, because I don’t think they want to let the air out of the tires, but I’m really, really excited. When the movie comes out, I’ll be talking about it plenty.

ATL: With Five Nights at Freddy’s, people are interested in video game movies again. Is there more in the horror vein you’d like to do? What’s your next move?

Roth: I never know until I do it, but I had the time of my life doing this. It felt like the energy of Hostel 1. And it was also because Milan Chadima, who was my DP on Hostel and Hostel 2 and the Grindhouse trailer shot it. But it’s fun. I have 20 years of experience now. You’re directing from a different place, like you still have that same energy. But I believe in the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hours theory, that it takes 10,000 hours, which is about 10 years of concentrated work, to master anything. Now we’re coming up on 20 years, so I feel like I’m getting close to that 10,000 hours where I can really know what I’m doing. I’ve made nine feature films and a doc, produced a bunch of things, where I can approach it with a certain amount of experience. I just want to up my game. I’m only interested in doing it if I can make it better than the previous one. That’s the truth.

Thanksgiving opens nationwide on Friday, Nov. 17 with previews on Thursday night.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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